The wall is full of plaques, almost as if there is not a spare inch of space left. St. George’s Memorial Church is an English speaking Anglican establishment in Flemish Iepers (that’s Ypres to us Canadians). The church, built after the First World War for those Anglophones working in the area, was funded entirely by memorial donations, recorded on the brass plaques.
I wander around, looking for Canadian memorials, and find some: The Canadian Corps, Canadian Mounted Rifles, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, the Canadian Machine Gun Corps, many more; Canadian veterans contributed the heating system. Then I came across the plaque for Fettes College.
I’d never heard of Fettes College before, so I utilized everyone’s favourite search engine (Google if you didn’t guess) and learned the facility is located in Edinburgh and is more than 140 years old. Their website doesn’t tell me anywhere near what I want to know about the history of the school, but I think the assumption may be that if you have to ask then you probably aren’t their type of people.
Not that I need to know more than what is engraved on the plaque on the wall at St. George’s Church: “In 1914 there were fewer than 2000 living Fettesians, of whom some 900 were over 40. By 1918, 1094 had served of whom 246 had given their lives for their country. 29 died in the Ypres Salient.”
I know from reading recruiting posters in the Flanders Fields Museum that to enlist you had to be under 38, 45 if you had previous military service. Do the math. Out of a potential pool of let us say 1999 maximum, 900 were too old to enlist. 1094 served. That means that perhaps five graduates from Fettes College did not join up.
Yes, I know, that math is simplistic, and doesn’t take into account any graduates from 1914-17 who may have enlisted while the war was in progress. But it is still an impressive number, by anyone’s standards.
It was a different age, far more black and white than our 21st century shades of gray. Belief in a just war and accepting propaganda as fact may well have played a part in it, but it seems virtually 100% of Fettes’ graduates answered the call to serve King and country. Where is that devotion today, from anyone, for any cause?
The call came and they went. No excuses, no looking for an easy way out. They accepted the assurance that the cause was righteous and they understood their duty to serve. We know better now of course. People will tell you there is no such thing as a righteous cause. No black and white, everything comes in different shades of grey.
Which has me worried: what do we do when confronted with a moral evil, if indeed such a thing does exist? Would we be able to recognize it? Would we be willing to act?
We have been scarred by what Augustine would have considered unjust wars, fought with dubious purpose for questionable ends such as the American agony in Vietnam that ended with a Communist state, the 20th century incursions into Central America to protect the interests of United Fruit, the 21st century battles to ensure a supply of cheap oil.
The Parliament of Canada has been debating whether Canadian troops should be involved in the battle against the self-styled Islamic State in the Middle East. There is unanimity that the atrocities committed in the name of this state really do merit the label “evil.” There is no defence, no justification for rapes, murders and beheadings. There is disagreement on what action to take.
There are those who say it is not Canada’s job to combat this evil, it is somebody else’s problem. Somehow I doubt the 2000 graduates of Fettes College who lived at the beginning of the First World War would agree.